‘Write a diary,” everybody said at the start of lockdown. “Everything will change. The way you feel will completely change. Make like Samuel Pepys and the plague. Leave a little something for the historians.” Everything has changed, and yet nothing has changed. Nothing. [Solid Theresa May emphasis.] Has. Changed. My putatively shielding mother still has her builder round every day. My ceiling has still fallen in. We still don’t know where the leak is coming from, successive plumbers scratching their heads, nothing for a week followed by more water. The conversations get smaller and smaller, but the physical realities of the world don’t change. Water will always find its own level – in this case, the floor (absent a ceiling).
Rules, though – they’ve changed. In England, they were relaxed last Monday for those shielding, giving most of them more freedom to see friends and family. So when I had an Extremely Important Zoom to do, instead of using my son’s room, with a poster of Dark Phoenix and an unmade bed where the intellectual books should be, I went to my mother’s. She has a great bookshelf. My sister painted it, to commission, to look like the sculpture of a bookshelf she made for me when I went to university. All the shelves in that sculpture contained a different, insane thing – a miniature sheep, a tin bucket, an impossibly small matchstick – which, looking back, I can only take to be an elaborate diss: “You ain’t never gonna read any books, you doughnut.” I didn’t notice that at the time. All the shelves in my mother’s real-life version have books in them, which even though they are a bit special-interest (it’s basically a compendium of 80s conspiracy theories about nuclear waste) certainly wouldn’t disgrace a person.
“What shall I do when Bryan comes round?” she asked, as I arrived. Bryan is the builder. “Shall I just chat to him in the garden?”
“Well, the Zoom call’s scheduled from 11 until 12. Is there any chance he might arrive after that?”
“I don’t know when he’s coming!” she said, in high dudgeon, as if I’d asked her the most suburban question, like whether she paid her water bill monthly or quarterly. “I suppose I could communicate with a pen and a piece of paper.”
“I don’t even know why you need your builder round. He’s already mended your letterbox when you never get any letters, and lopped the fruiting element off all your tomato plants.”
“He’s doing what you should be doing. If you were doing it, he wouldn’t be here.”
“Which bit of what I should be doing am I not doing?” I said, annoyed, but also mindful of how close to 11am it was.
It’s a bit like being stoned, conferring with crap wifi: people's words arrive in advance of their facial expressions
“Ninety-nine percent,” she said, with absolute authority, like she was Chris Whitty doing actual statistics.
I got on the Zoom. I thought the broadband would be amazing because nobody in the house was playing Fortnite or Animal Crossing, doing a Teams call of their own or watching Hamilton again on Disney+, which is the amount of concurrent activity going on in my own home round the clock. But of course it’s a Darwinian thing: your internet package evolves to be just slightly less good than what you need, so in a house where all anyone does is retweet Jolyon Maugham, it’s absolutely (my whole fist is in my mouth to silence a swearword here) woeful.
It’s a bit like being stoned, conferring on-screen with crap wifi: everybody’s blurry round the edges; their words arrive in advance of their facial expressions; it’s not the easiest thing in the world to tell who’s talking, so you just have to hope they all agree.
And then Bryan arrived. Fair play to the man: he is the most tactful, thoughtful, quiet-voiced individual you’ve ever met. “We can’t talk too loud,” said my mother to him in a stage whisper that could have blown down any temporary structure, up to and including brick. “Hang on,” she whispered, forcefully enough to rattle the box blinds. “Let me just find a pen and a piece of paper.”
Impossible conundrum. It’s super-cute when you have to interrupt your professional life to tell a three-year-old to stop yapping on about unicorns. There is no socially acceptable way to tell an 83-year-old to stop bloody shout-laughing in her own kitchen or go in her own bloody garden. “SHUT UP” I texted, keeping my eyes fixedly on my Zoom. The internet, unable to walk and chew gum at the same time, failed to deliver this message. The call ended.
“Half a percent,” she amended, when I went back to sit down. “That’s how much you do of what you should be doing.”
“Well, I’m here three hours a week, so, mathematically speaking, the right amount of time according to you is every hour of the day in a newly adjusted 25-day week.”
Reader, I did sod off. Then some hours later, she was delivered of my text. “SUIT YUP.” Goddamn autocorrect.
• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist